In many ways, we’ve been spoiled since the beginning of the 2010’s with the level of excellence that’s been on constant display in European football. This hasn’t always been the case as the footballing landscape was in an unclear place once we reached the back end of the 2000's, with there being a temporary lack of superstar attackers. Ronaldinho was at the tail end of his peak, Thierry Henry was entering his post-prime years, Ronaldo was far removed from his best following numerous knee injuries and overall fitness issues. As well, we were still a couple of years away from the next generation of attacking talents truly taking the torch from the old guard.
This is where Kaka helped fill that temporary gap in star power, particularly in the 2006–07 season. His performances in the Champions League help propel AC Milan to the final where they defeated Liverpool 2–1, exacting revenge for what happened when the two teams met in the final two years prior. He contributed 13 goals during the campaign, which was tops in the competition, and that played a big part in him winning the 2007 Ballon D’or. In his mid 20's, Kaka was at the peak of his powers and generally regarded as the best player in the game.
Yet, one could argue that there’s a bit of a disconnect between Kaka’s reputation and what he actually produced. While Milan did make deep runs in the CL from 2004–07, they only won one Serie A title in 2003–04, Kaka’s first season at the San Siro. His own individual numbers were solid during his time in Italy, particularly when taking into account the style of play in the league & football not reaching the point where the best attacking players could put up video game like numbers, but some might look at what he produced and still feel a bit underwhelmed by it. To put it bluntly, was Kaka as good as his reputation suggested, or did he benefit from being in the right place at the right time with football desperately needing an injection of new blood?
The first thing to note with Kaka is just how unique his role was while playing at Milan. Though he was technically designated as a #10 on starting XI’s and did have the capacity to operate between the lines when needed (his ability to handle oncoming pressure was superb), in reality he was actually much closer to being a second striker or the shadow striker role that’s used in Football Manager. Given the passing quality around him, it allowed Kaka to focus most of his energy on making runs behind the opposition backline. When taking into account how excellent he was as a north -> south athlete along with his awareness for knowing when to time his vertical movement, Milan ended up having an outlet they could turn to when trying to create quality scoring chances.
This isn’t to say that Kaka was only utilized as a vertical threat, as that would be doing his off-ball movement somewhat of a disservice. He knew when to move from the left halfspace to the wing to avoid overpopulating that area of the pitch and creating space for others. His chemistry with Seedorf was particularly strong in the 2006–07 season as Seedorf was great at linking play in the inside channels, while Kaka could credibly operate from the flanks because of his athleticism and initiate 1–2 combinations. Occasionally, Kaka would drop deep if he saw an opportunity to receive the ball with little resistance and push forward to draw the defense to him. There was a lot to like with how he operated without the ball.
What Kaka is most renown for is his abilities as a ball carrier, and that part of his game has aged remarkably well with time, helped by the fact that he possessed one of the best change of pace dribbles that we’ve seen over the past 25–30 years, He was very versatile in how he could punish defenses in transition. He could simply pick up the ball from deep and turn on the jets from there. If he had his back to goal, he could peel off with his first touch because of his excellent fluidity & quickly spin to leave his marker in the dust. He could even split a potential double team if there was too much of a gap between the two opponents (His run vs Juventus in the compilation below is an example). The end result often was that he would draw a lot of fouls in the final third as almost a last resort by the opposition to eliminate good shooting opportunities.
There were slight kinks with Kaka’s ball carrying, even though he would rate as a very strong positive in that department when taking into account how his foul drawing ability created loads of set pieces opportunities in dangerous areas. He had his issues with tunnel vision where he’d miss openings to put teammates through inside the box. Perhaps this was the drawback to Kaka’s ability to consistently generate long distance carries. This did get cleaned up somewhat by the time we hit the 2006–07 season, where he was better at recognizing the gaps to slip in teammates and at least attempt more passes in these instances, even if the end results were still a bit erratic.
It’s a bit difficult to figure out how good of a passer Kaka was because he wasn’t tasked with a high creation burden in the final third. He could go for decent stretches during matches where he had minimal influence on the ball. This isn’t to say that Kaka wasn’t capable of creating A+ scoring chances, the best example of that being his spectacular throughball to Hernan Crespo for Milan’s 3rd goal vs Liverpool in 2005. I do think that his passing got better over time, and though the raw assist totals don’t show it, I would argue that he was the most consistent as a passer in the 2006–07 CL campaign. He almost exclusively played as a second striker during the knockout stages, and he gained enough experience playing under Carlo Ancielotti that the passing windows became more natural for him to try and exploit. He probably vacillated between being a neutral and a slight positive as a passer, peaking in 2007.
Aided by the overall structure & personnel that Milan had, it allowed Kaka to essentially free roam defensively and have a minimal workload. It’s somewhat similar to how Juventus accommodated Zinedine Zidane from 1996–2000, though Kaka had vastly more athletic capabilities so the moments where he did exert effort applying back pressure on opponents had more of an effect than with Zidane. Given how strong Milan‘s team defense was from 2004–07, and the limits that attacking players have on contributing defensive value, it’s hard to argue that Kaka was this massive liability on that end of the pitch.
Kaka is one of the more complex figures to evaluate, even more than a decade after his peak. Looking back, it’s pretty clear that he was in a great environment to flourish in. Andrea Pirlo was one of the top deep lying playmakers in Europe. Clarence Seedorf was a Swiss Army knife midfielder of the highest caliber who was great at acting as the connective tissue in the opposition half. Gennaro Gattuso did a lot of the dirty work at both ends of the pitch to help maintain shape, while also possessing a certain level of technical competence to not be a liability. The likes of Cafu, Massimo Oddo and Marek Jankulovski at fullback were deployed in a manner that was a window into how vital that position would eventually become in the 2010’s. As well, Milan had a star studded collection of central defenders and strikers that Kaka could play off of. Those ingredients added up to a side that functioned in attack somewhat atypically from the rest of Europe at the time given their emphasis on control in the midfield and the constant fluidity of positions taken by the midfielders behind Kaka.
In that sense, with the friendly setup Kaka had along with him being an output-oriented attacker because of his play style, that does bring greater scrutiny over his individual numbers. In fairness, his production does hold up decently when stacked against some of his peers from the 2000s. I looked at a handful of players from that decade who played as either a classic #10 or more of the hybrid role that Kaka had, and compared their best three year period of goal production in both the CL and their domestic league (data courtesy of FBref.com). Another condition was that each player must’ve played at least one of the three seasons in the CL. As shown below, Kaka’s holds his own when looking at their ability to generate goals.
It is important to note that some of the players had their three year peak occur at different parts of their career, while Kaka had his best run from 22–24, so this shouldn’t be seen as a robust comparison exercise. However, it does show that his numbers were pretty good when compared against players who are held up in high esteem. As well, Kaka deserves a bit of credit for his game being relatively inelastic, fairing comparably in the CL vs what he produced in Serie A. From 2004–07, Kaka’s goal contribution per 90 in the CL was 0.62, versus his Serie A rate of 0.56. It’s hard to tell though how much of Kaka’s inelasticity against tougher competition actually helped on a team level, because Milan’s goals per game rate declined from their rate of 1.82 domestically to 1.5 in the CL over that same four year period.
Outside of questions about his individual numbers, probably the biggest criticism pointed at Kaka would be the lack of domestic success during his time at Milan, especially from 2004–07 when the team was in a better position to contend. Some leniency should be given since Juventus have dominated Italian football for major parts of the 21st century. Milan did finish ahead of them in 2003–04, and won the Supercoppa Italiana in 2004, though many would debate whether these Community Shield like victories should count as a trophy. Even with the lack of data available during the 2000s, we can try to approximate for a team’s true talent level using football’s version of the Pythagorean Win Expectation that’s famous in baseball. Because Serie A didn’t change to a 38 game schedule until 2004–05, this will only look at individual team seasons from 2005–07. Below are the 15 highest expected point tally from those three seasons.
Now, it would be irresponsible to not mention that Calciopoli did occur within that period which rocked Italian football to its core, so there’s a bit of a dark cloud that hovers over attempts at quantifying team performance given the nature of the scandal. Taking those numbers purely at face value, Milan’s 2005–06 campaign had a higher expected point total than anyone else, and this did also coincide with Kaka having his best individual season in Serie A to that point (he would later tie his 0.67 non penalty goal contribution per 90 rate in 2007–08). This might give a slight hint that Kaka’s game could scale on high end domestic sides, though it’s nothing concrete.
As mentioned earlier, Kaka is hard to evaluate in part because of just how unique his game was, so I wanted to get an outside perspective on this. I turned to Flavio Fusi, someone who I trust greatly when it comes to discussing Italian football, and asked for his thoughts. What I was particularly curious about was whether Kaka would’ve fared well if tasked with more creative duties at another club, and if he was historically underrated or overrated. Here was Flavio’s response:
I think so, but I also think that Kaká’s uniqueness and his place in history depend on the fact that he unknowingly anticipated an era. A bit like Ronaldo, A.C. Milan’s number 22 was a futuristic footballer, who 15 years ago showed us what today’s football could have been like, where even the most technical players need exceptional physical means to be able to excel. If you ask me, Kaká is historically underrated because even though his dominance was universally recognized at the time, now we have even more knowledge and experience to acknowledge his almost transcendental role in the evolution of football and of his position.
The mention of Kaka being ahead of the curve because of his athleticism was a very good point, and something I didn’t necessarily think of beforehand. Possessing at least sub-elite levels of athleticism is almost required in today’s game to stand a chance at being an upper echelon attacking talent. I certainly give Kaka a small portion of credit for helping football’s evolution to where we are currently, although I’m not sure how much more credit he should be allotted.
As it is, I still come out of this with the nagging feeling that Kaka was a tad bit overrated. To be sure, I think he was very good, and it’s not completely unreasonable to see how the media came to the conclusion that he was the best in the game at one point. Football was a lot less accessible back then so weekly scrutiny wasn’t as possible, and that 2007 CL run was memorable. Kaka performing at a slightly higher level in Europe in nearly 4000 minutes from 2004–07 was likely a big enough sample to suggest that his game translated to cup competition, most likely due to his ability to be a singular force. His ball carrying would’ve certainly traveled well regardless of what system he played in, which is a feather in his cap. Even though his passing was fine, I do have real questions over how he would’ve performed as a playmaker if he wasn’t in as good of a situation as he was in Milan. In that scenario where he has to have a greater usage as a creator, that could potentially have the knock-on effect of his strong off-ball movement not being utilized as much. Given some of my concerns with his portability, along with him not necessarily performing at an elite level despite the favorable conditions he got to play in, I just think the overall package for Kaka during those four seasons didn’t quite match the reputation he garnered.
#1: Zinedine Zidane
#2: Roy Keane
#3: Claude Makélélé
#4: Steven Gerrard